The Northwest Arkansas Land Trust is sprinting to protect land from development. No time for a marathon in a region expected to grow to 1 million people by 2045.
"The momentum we feel today is due to generations of work done by conservation-minded people across Northwest Arkansas," said Robert Hopper, director of engagement and giving at the Northwest Arkansas Land Trust.
"We stand on the shoulders of leaders like Dr. Neil Compton and the Ozark Society in their campaign to save the Buffalo River, like the founding members of the land trust who 20 years ago saw the coming critical need to balance our region's explosive growth with strategic land protection, and so many more."
Demand for land is expected to keep prices high, making it more difficult to acquire open space and set it aside for future generations.
The trust counts some powerful teammates. The Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission and the Walton Family Foundation, as well as cities and counties, are all working individually and in concert to acquire and maintain as many natural places as possible.
Grady Spann, executive director, said the Land Trust has 6,584 acres -- roughly the size of Lowell -- under protection. That includes working with private landowners to get conservation easements and properties the trust owns.
"We are about working with a rapidly growing area of the state to protect and preserve the natural beauty," Spann said. "It's also about giving people access to natural areas," he said.
That need became more apparent during the covid-19 pandemic.
"People really found out that nature is a safe place, nature is a healing place, nature is a place that you can recharge your batteries," Spann said. "And, part of our mission is to provide that public access and areas of natural environment that really allow people to reconnect and recharge their batteries."
Spann said maintaining the region's water quality by protecting stream banks and riparian zones and other natural habitat is another benefit. Beaver Lake is the primary water source for most residents of Northwest Arkansas. Open space holds water, keeping it from rushing into the rivers and washing pollutants into Beaver Lake.
Spann said the trust works with individual landowners who want to put a conservation easement on their land to tailor an agreement that reflects their desire for a land legacy. The trust is a nonprofit group, not a government entity, so landowners decide whether to allow access to their land.
"Some people want to leave it in a natural habitat. Some people want to protect certain parts of their land while on other parts, they're allowed to build a house," Spann said. "When we protect it, we protect it from future development based on the owners' desires with the conservation easement."
Spann stressed landowners also decide whether their land will be accessible by the public. Some want to protect their land for the future, but don't necessarily want to deal with people wandering around on their property now.
"The folks who are donating to us know that if they don't do this that those pieces of property will soon disappear forever. Once the trees are cut and the concrete's laid, it will never go back to the way it was."
"Those are the kinds of people that really grasp the importance of the balance of growth and development versus natural space, natural access and protecting habitats that could become endangered very quickly if we don't proactively plan together to prevent that," Spann said.
The trust also has protections in place for pieces of property along Flint Creek in the Springtown area.
"It's a very, very special place," Spann said. "By protecting that property, we're able to protect the purity of the creek."
A personal decision
Jim Luckens and Janet Bachman have chosen to protect 128 acres of their property on the West Fork of the White River near Greenland. The property straddles about 4,000 feet of the river, which is a tributary of Beaver Lake. The property includes forest and riverine wetlands. The stream banks also provide a corridor for wildlife.
Bachman, a long-time vendor at the Fayetteville Farmer's Market, continues to operate a large-scale organic garden on the property they've owned since 1989. The couple began to think about a conservation easement a few years ago.
"We want to protect this place as it is, and Northwest Arkansas Land Trust, we worked with them and they've got a map of what stays in trees for ever and ever, what can be tilled, what can be pasture and so on," Bachman said. "Where we're located, it's a high-value place, and we didn't want to have it turned into houses and all that. It's a way to protect the wild spaces and the agriculture spaces."
Luckens said their first conservation easement was along the river as part of a stream bank restoration project by the Watershed Conservation Resource Center.
"We were blessed to have them choose our spot because on the bank right across from the airport on our far south boundary we would lose 20 to 30 feet of bank in high water. It'd wash down to Beaver Lake, I guess," Bachman said. "They chose that as a place that really needed restoration, and they did a beautiful job."
Luckens said several years later they had a clearer vision of what they wanted to do with their property and put all the land under a conservation easement. The Land Trust as part of the agreement will monitor the land in perpetuity to make sure their wishes are met.
Luckens said a prime motivation was their desire the land remain the way it is.
"One of them was the urbanization around Fayetteville, so much ag land and forest land being put into either housing or businesses," Luckens said. "And, the fact that this is a piece of property that is close to town but not yet developed, that was the driving force for us."
Luckens said there's lots of flexibility in how an agreement can be written, and one's values are part of that, which makes it an attractive option.
"In our case, the restriction against subdividing it, that's part of our easement. It can't be broken up and sold in pieces. It has to stay together," Luckens said. "We tried to write it to where there's enough flexibility in what they could do that somebody who owns it in the future would be able to still use it."
Spann said the trust both buys and accepts donations of land. The group has been able to protect or acquire a number of standout properties, he said.
One of the most recent ones is the Betty Hinshaw property.
"She donated 25 acres to us out at Tontitown, and she wanted it to be transformed into a bird sanctuary, to really establish a habitat for our feathered friends," Spann said.
"So, our entire effort of the stewardship of that land will focus on establishing a very healthy habitat for nesting and migrating birds. That, to me, is a very unique gift that then is allowed to be open to the public."
The trust recently purchased 300 acres of the Blackburn Bluffs property in southwest Washington County, which it had never had the money to do before. The money came from an anonymous gift from a local conservationist, grassroots donations from Land Trust supporters and conservation-minded corporate partners.
The property is adjacent to Rotten Bluff Hollow, a privately owned 725-acre tract the trust protected working with supportive conservation buyers and a conservation easement agreement in late 2019. Together, the properties establish a 1,025-acre protected corridor.
"It's a very unique area, it has intermittent streams in it and abuts a very beautiful natural area," Spann said. "But, what that does is it starts to make a wildlife corridor that we hope will connect from Devil's Den State Park all the way up to the National Forest to where animals can migrate north and south without danger."
The Blackburn Bluffs property is extremely remote and is not open to the public because it can only be accessed by crossing private land, Spann said.
The trust also recently bought 830 acres in the Lake Frances area and will be working with Trailblazers of Arkansas to create single-track trail and also kind of a Razorback Greenway-type trail through that property to allow people to engage with the natural resources, Spann said.
The area was once a privately owned resort, but is pretty much abandoned now. Back in the day, the owners had a lodge, a dance hall and other amenities and attractions, Spann said.
"Today, it's a real unique environment that we'll be able to protect to provide more greenspace and protect that watershed," Spann said. "It's in the Illinois River watershed."
A regional effort
Regional Planners redoubled their open space preservation efforts in 2015, with a year-long study. A $350,000 grant from the Walton Family Foundation paid for the study. The resulting plan, approved in 2016, was incorporated into the region's long-term master plan.
The purpose of the plan is to develop a coordinated, voluntary program to protect and promote the region's most valued natural landscapes and open spaces and to make natural areas in Benton and Washington counties available to residents.
The Northwest Arkansas Open Space Coalition was formed as part of that effort. The group meets regularly to work on open space issues. Among those involved are the Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning Commission, the Northwest Arkansas Land Trust, Illinois River Watershed Partnership, Beaver Watershed Alliance, the Nature Conservancy, the Northwest Arkansas Council, the Urban Land Institute and the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission, Arkansas Archaeology Survey and Heritage Trail Partners. Several cities send representatives. Meetings are open to anyone who wants to attend.
Examples of open space include the regional trail system, national forests, state and national parks, wildlife management areas, rivers and areas around Beaver Lake, University of Arkansas agricultural property, city parks, properties held in trust and land owned by private nonprofit groups.
The coalition is also responsible for education and outreach as well as gauging the level of interest from local landowners and exploring local funding mechanisms to acquire land, where appropriate.
The coalition does not have a dedicated local funding source, but it's working with members in the region, as a facilitator, to get them to set land aside, according to Elizabeth Bowen, with Northwest Arkansas Regional Planning.
Bowen recently asked member cities to pass resolutions expressing their willingness to support the region's Open Space Plan by identifying priorities within their borders for protection and to follow the guidance in that plan.
"These natural areas and open spaces are being fragmented or lost forever by the rapid growth of Northwest Arkansas," according to the resolution.
Cities may also allow developers to give money in lieu of greenspace.
"They can get cash, combine that cash and purchase larger pieces or preserve larger pieces instead of very small pieces," Bowen said. "That's another opportunity that can be beneficial."
Bowen said Rogers was recently joined by more than 10 other entities and individuals to buy prairie land along Dixieland Road.
Land remains expensive in Northwest Arkansas and the real estate market moves quickly, Bowen said. Without a dedicated funding source, it's difficult to identify and purchase land before private individuals or developers buy it up.
Bowen said she is constantly getting calls about properties and she tries to notify the folks that could purchase the land, do a protective easement or help someone preserve the property.
"You don't have to buy it every time. It can be preserved in lots of different ways," Bowen said.